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Chris Farley: The Troubled Clown

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Chris Farley: The Troubled Clown

Chris Farley was unafraid of making a fool of himself for laughs. As a cast member on Saturday Night Live, the comedian famously danced topless next to Patrick Swayze, mocked his Midwest heritage as an overzealous Chicago Bears fan, and slapped on a skirt and wig to play a "Gap Girl."

But while Farley played the clown, he was a sad, troubled man. After Farley's death, his friends and family described him as a sensitive soul who just wanted to be liked.

Farley died of a drug overdose in 1997 at 33. As People magazine observed, "What makes Farley's fate even more poignant is the sense that his self-esteem woes and powerful addictions fueled his comic persona, that of a self-loathing slob who crashed through windows for laughs."

"He always said, 'They come to see the fat boy fall down,'" Second City producer Joyce Sloane, who helped launch Farley's career, told the magazine.”But I don't think he liked being the fat boy. He had all these demons that he just could not fight."

Farley chose comedy as a career after watching his father "roar with laughter while watching John Belushi in 'Animal House,'" according to People. He followed in Belushi's comic footsteps, starting out with Chicago's Second City troupe. And, like Belushi, he found fame on Saturday Night Live, joining the cast in 1990. (He would find success later on the big screen with movies such as Tommy Boy, Black Sheep and Beverly Hills Ninja.)

Farley's drug and alcohol problems had started back in Chicago. They intensified in New York, to the point that SNL producer Lorne Michaels sent him to a three-month stint in rehab in 1991.

Michaels often compared Farley to Belushi. In a TV Guide interview, he noted that both were gifted comics. Both were in way over their heads with drugs. Both died at 33.

"I think Chris looked at John and went, 'That's what I want to do.' I think he even went to bed sometimes with his eyebrows taped up, you know put Scotch tape on his eyebrows to see if they could stay up like Belushi's did," Michaels said. "He perhaps romanticized what he thought was John, the way John lived."

The Chris Farley Show, an authorized biography written by Farley's oldest brother, Tom, and Tanner Colby, who also co-wrote a Belushi biography, details how Farley attempted rehab more than a dozen times.

But the book also "paints a vivid portrait of a young man who was very troubled, yes, but also very sweet, very gifted, very charismatic and very focused – endearingly so – on making people laugh," according to its review in The New York Times.

In the last year of Farley's life, it was apparent he was not well. He had gained weight, and his skin was pale and often sweaty. In the Farley biography, Chevy Chase recounted how he encouraged Farley to seek help because, "when you overdose or kill yourself, you will not have the same acclaim that John did."

Chris Rock talks in the book about how much he'd always hated Farley's famous Chippendales sketch.

"The joke of it is, basically, 'We can't hire you because you're fat.' There's no comic twist to it. It's just (bleep)ing mean," Rock said. "Chris wanted so much to be liked. As funny as that sketch was … it's one of the things that killed him."

Farley long carried a copy of the poem "A Clown's Prayer" in his wallet. It was printed on the back of his funeral program. It reads in part, "As I stumble through this life, help me create more laughter than tears, dispense more happiness than gloom, spread more cheer than despair."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."